The COVID-19 pandemic caused a dramatic uptick in distance and hybrid learning, which exacerbated the digital learning divide. However, new research has found that the digital learning equity gap has returned to pre-pandemic levels.
A recent report from LeanPlatform, a developer of an educational technology (ed tech) effectiveness system, found that the digital equity learning gap appears to be trending back toward pre-COVID-19 levels after significant widening immediately after school closures in the spring.
The research found that more affluent school districts have seen a decrease in ed tech usage as the fall semester has progressed, but there has been more consistent usage at less affluent districts, which the researchers defined as districts where 25 percent of more of students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. Unlike their wealthier counterparts, less affluent districts only saw a slight decrease in ed tech use since October.
While it is positive to see the equity gap decreasing, there is no reason to celebrate.
“It’s heartening to learn that districts serving low-income families are improving ed tech engagement levels,” said Karl Rectanus, CEO and co-founder of LearnPlatform. “But the pre-COVID-19 equity gap was far too high for any of us to be satisfied with that as a baseline.”
A recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts noted that currently, 15 million to 16 million elementary and secondary students lack adequate internet access or digital devices at home to support online learning. Pew found that the digital divide most seriously impacts low-income and rural school districts. States across the county have turned to CARES Act funding to help schools meet both K-12 and higher education students’ needs in a variety of ways.
The closing of the previously increased digital equity gap may be related to state and local school districts using some of the $150 billion provided under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act – passed by Congress and signed into law in March 2020 – to meet the changing needs of both students and educators.
School districts have used the funding to modernize classroom technology, expand broadband access in their school district, and provide devices to students in need. They’ve also used the money to purchase online platforms and curricula better suited for distance and hybrid learning.
The research is based on the usage of more than 8,000 ed tech tools used within school districts in 17 states.